Sunday, August 28, 2011

Foodbuzz 24x24: Wine Country Trattoria

Our first dinner experience in Wine Country was back in 2004.  It wasn't a Thomas Keller restaurant, it was the backyard of the Swiss-Italian family from whom we were renting our summer house.  Bottle after bottle of wine, platters of amazing but simple food sourced from the farmers' market and an evening with new friends that we wanted to last forever.  It made an impression that we have never forgotten and it was the inspiration for this dinner to end all dinners.

While I usually recoil at the idea of cooking for any major event, the brother of a friend decided to get married in Wine Country.  Having recently visited Cline Family Cellars in Sonoma, I had the perfect place in mind when my friend called asking for suggestions to get him and his fiance on the road to wedding planning. Though they ended up holding the wedding elsewhere due to scheduling issues, Cline also has a gorgeous villa on site to rent.  When I informed them that the kitchen was amazing, they decided it was the perfect place to stay for the weekend and for their rehearsal dinner.

"Maybe you could cook for it?" my friend suggested.

Wheels turning in my head and given complete creative license by the bride and groom, I began to visualize this perfect event. 

The bride's only request was that all the guests be at one long table.  Remembering that first wine country experience in 2004, I knew I wanted her, the groom and her guests to have that same unforgettable feeling.  We would do the main part of the dinner Trattoria style.  No fancy plating, simple food created from pristine, farm-sourced ingredients and served on platters for all the guests to pass.

Relying on what I could find this week at the local farms, I eventually created the menu which we paired with Cline's spectacular and affordable wines. 

Like most events, the planning and preparation was as fun as the event itself.  Spending an entire morning visiting farm after farm to buy (in some cases picking myself) fruits and veggies at their peak was as close as I will get right now to gathering until I have my own garden.

Erickson Ranch in Suisun was my first stop for their local grapes to make a Harvest sauce for the Sage and Proscuitto Wrapped Chicken (See recipe below).

But I also left with ten pounds of multi-colored potatoes,

giant red onions to accompany green beans, farro and Vella Dry Jack (a Sonoma cheese similar to parmesan),

and Gravenstein apples that were caramelized to be tossed in an arugula salad with shallots, Lavender almonds (now affectionately named "Crack Almonds" by those who were near enough to the kitchen to try them before they went into the salad and, incidentally, my new favorite way to make almonds. Email me for the recipe.) and topped with Wild Salmon I hot-smoked that afternoon.

The next stop not only garnered me ridiculous tomatoes, but a new farmer friend to boot. Brad at Wild Boar Farms not only shared his treasured Armenian cucumbers with me as a snack but taught me, as we walked up and down harvesting tomatoes in his fields, what a Green Zebra cherry tomato should look like when ripe (more amber on the ends than green should you be tomato harvesting any time soon).  I also learned that I would be serving the same tomatoes at my dinner that Alice Waters' and her team serve at the legendary Chez Panisse. Wow!  One taste of their perfectly ripe, sweet and perfectly acidic juiciness and I knew why.

Sadly the guests could not see the finished product on the platter since the main part of dinner was served by candlelight only.  However, most of them had walked by the kitchen at some point and took pictures of the tomatoes in their natural state with the urge to everyone else to "come look at these tomatoes...they're beautiful."  Even still, this simple platter of tomatoes drizzled with olive oil from a man in my town name Ennio and topped off with torn purple basil was the one dish that we were afraid was going to spark a fork fight at the otherwise civilized dinner.
The next stop was the aforementioned Brazelton Ranch for peaches that became part of "Peaches and Cream".
Homemade Bellweather Farms Creme Fraiche gelato to go alongside Rosemary Polenta Cake and on top of the no-need-for-sugar peaches.

Finally that afternoon, I went with my youngest son to our favorite little oasis just outside of our town, Gibson Canyon Farm.
This funky little farmstand staffed primarily by WWOOF volunteers is slowly growing into it's own and provided me with Lemon Cucumbers for Lime Cucumber Water (part of a flavored water selection) and long, red Carmine peppers which were graciously picked by Sue, the owner and a volunteer while I waited and my son pet the tiny bunnies.  These were pickled for our Rosemary White Bean Hummus crostini and roasted alongside the potatoes.

The white bean crostini rounded out a trio of crostini which also included housemade fig and onion jam on top of Point Reyes blue cheese, and Preserved Meyer Lemon & Black Olive tapenade with Sonoma goat cheese. These were all part of the poolside Welcome Bar that greeted the guests upon their return from the rehearsal.

A beautiful dream setting that was merely a wine tasting adventure for my husband and I on a weekend away in April became a beautiful setting for someone else's Big Event weekend.

Though it was hard work, it was an amazing day for us as well.  Kyle was there yesterday not only because these were friends of his, too, but also as a support for me every step of the way.
Making sure candles were lit and glasses were full. 
(Okay, not in this photo because guests had wine glasses in hand at the Welcome Bar.)

By the end of the night, toasts were made both by the guests as we were finishing service
And by the staff for a job well done.  I couldn't have done it without them...some I knew before tonight and a couple not so much.  But by the end of the night there were promises of more dinners to come, this time side by side at our own tables and even a future salmon fishing expedition. (Another dream of mine.)
Thanks to Dena (on the left) for hobbling along on a cast up and down stairs to take 90% plus of the pictures that I wouldn't have had time to take.  To Heidi and Mike for coming after long days at other jobs to help us serve and clean up and to Foodbuzz for giving me incentive to include this dinner in the 24 x 24 event they sponsor each month.

So thanks for indulging me with this post.  I will return to making Everyday Meals from Seasonal Produce and What I Have on Hand tomorrow, but just for one day I got the privilege and pleasure of creating an Over-the-Top meal using my same cooking philosophy.

Sage and Proscuitto Wrapped Chicken with Harvest Sauce
1 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut horizontally into two thin cutlets each
6-8 large sage leaves (enough for each cutlet)
3 slices proscuitto, cut in half lenghtwise on the diagonal
Salt & cracked black pepper
Olive oil for sauteing

Harvest Sauce
2 shallots, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup chicken stock, preferable homemade
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 lb local organic grapes, seedless or seeded (they will be strained out)
1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 sprigs fresh thyme

Heat oven to 325 degrees.

Pat chicken breasts dry.  Place a sage leaf in the middle of each chicken breast and wrap with a slice of proscuitto - starting with narrow end of triangle on the back then wrap around.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Saute chicken proscuitto side down for 2-3 minutes or until brown.  Flip over a cook the other side until the surface is opaque.  Place chicken in a shallow pan and drizzle with 1/4 chicken stock.  Cover with foil and bake while making the stock.

Saute the shallots and garlic for a minute.  Add remaining stock and wine along with the remaining ingredients.  Cook on medium high until the grapes are soft enough to mash slightly and the sauce has reduced by half.  Mash the grapes and cook for another minute to reduce a bit more.  Strain into a bowl then pour the strained sauce back into the pan.  Reduce for another 3-4 minutes or until the sauce is slightly thickened. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.  Remove chicken from oven and place on a platter.  Pour the sauce over the chicken and serve.

Copyright 2011 Christi Flaherty, TablaVie Cooking Classes

Monday, August 22, 2011

Meatless Monday (almost) - Pasta Carbonara with Corn and Squash

Like most of the rest of the US, weather affects everything.  Making the choice to base your grocery shopping on what's available at the moment from local farms means that weather affects what you serve your family for dinner each night.

I have a great appreciation for farmers now since we've made this choice.  When I expected to go to our local blue farmhouse and buy peaches from Jean, the spunky grandma who sits outside under a white tent, instead I saw a handwritten "CLOSED" sign over the handpainted (peach-colored paint) weathered plyboard sign.  I was distraught and called the phone number I saw listed in Slow Food Solano for Brazelton Ranch.  What I learned is stone fruit trees do not appreciate late Spring rains and wind.  The apparently show their disappointment by producing in their own time and holding back what they did produce.  So, peaches didn't come until mid-August and are only around for a week or two when they will run out. 

I've bought four flats in 5 days.  THEY ARE THAT GOOD!!  Harry and I had not even made it out of the short circular drive in front of the farmhouse when we bit into the first ones.  Juice dripping everywhere we passed one of the farmhands who was smiling very big as we drove past him and he glanced over at us (and I secretly think he was enjoying us enjoying his work.)  We will be eating peaches non-stop until I call Jean and find out that there are no more.  We will miss them when they are gone and lament about  them until we finally see the handpainted sign up next year.

So you're probably wondering how the Pasta Carbonara factors into this.... Like the peaches, corn is late this year, too.  We're still getting four ears in each veggie box and we had bought five more at a farmstand the day before.  So when I realized it was already dinner time and I hadn't thawed any meat, I knew what I had to do.

La Cucina Povera (peasant cooking) at it's finest, with some pasta, eggs, a little parm and bacon, you have dinner.  I always throw in whatever vegetables I have to round it out and that usually includes onions.  Today we had the corn which I had husked and cut off the cob.  There was a variety of small baby squash in our veggie box so those got thrown in the mix as well.

By the way, many recipes call for wine and cream.  I go the really Povera route and use the pasta cooking water.  It lightens it up and since I don't always have cream on hand, don't have to worry about it. And you can use any seasonal vegetables you have on hand--asparagus and fresh peas in the spring, broccoli or cauliflower in early summer, squash or green beans in deep summer and eggplant, mushrooms or peppers in the early fall.  If you don't have anything fresh at the moment, use 1/2 the amount of frozen peas.  And worst case scenario, leave out the veggies and serve a salad or fruit.  This goes great with chardonnay or a light red wine, by the way.  Even in Cocina Povera there is always wine!

CWYG Stats
Veggie Box Items - corn, squash, red onions, sage (not in box but in herb garden)

CWYG List Items - olive oil, bacon, pasta, eggs, parmesan cheese
Pasta Carbonara with Corn and Summer Squash
1 pound pasta, I use brown rice penne
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (enough to coat bottom of pan)
1/4 pound bacon, chopped
½ cup onion, chopped (I used red, but any type of onion is fine)
2 cups seasonal vegetables, cut to the same size as the pasta you are using (or 1 cup frozen peas)
2 tbsp thinly sliced fresh sage (don't use dry just use whatever fresh herbs you have on hand or leave out)
4 large egg yolks
Freshly grated Parmesan Cheese
Freshly grated pepper.

1. Put a large saucepot of water on to boil. Add a liberal amount (I mean it...2 tbsp or more) of salt and the pasta. Cook to al dente, about 7-8 minutes. Reserve at least 2 cups of cooking water before draining.

2. Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil and bacon. Brown
bacon 2 minutes. Add onion and stir until all the brown bits come off the bottom of the pan.  Add vegetables (not peas) and saute until lightly brown and tender.  Add half of the sage and cook for a minute

3. In a separate bowl, beat yolks, a large grating of pepper and a handful of grated cheese. Add
1 large ladleful (about 1/2 cup) of the pasta cooking water while constantly whisking. This tempers the eggs and keeps them from scrambling when added to the pasta.

4. Drain pasta well and add it directly to the skillet with bacon and veggie mixture. Pour the egg mixture
over the pasta. Toss rapidly to coat the pasta without cooking the egg. Add more pasta water as needed to keep it from being gloppy. Add peas now if you are using them.  Remove pan from heat and continue to toss and turn the pasta until it soaks up egg mixture and thickens, 1 to 2 minutes. Add a big handful of cheese, a little more pasta water.  Stir again then taste.  Add pepper and salt if needed. Stir one more time then sprinkle with extra grated cheese and reserved sage.

Copyright 2011 Christi Flaherty, TablaVie Cooking Classes

Thursday, August 11, 2011

My first tomato harvest - Pasta Caprese

It's not much, but it made me proud.  So I made it pasta!

Having just moved to a new home and not being able to cook, I couldn't wait to get to it after days of take-out and ready to grill meats and salads from Fresh n Easy.   Cooking helps me feel settled so even amidst boxes, I had to do it.  So after pulling out the necessities and clearing off the counter, I "cooked".

Summer "cooking" really doesn't involve much.  For this recipe, it was simply a couple of bocconcinis (3" size fresh mozzarella balls) torn into pieces along with these beautiful tomatoes (look for a variety of shapes, sizes and colors), basil and the few green beans which I blanched and removed prior to cooking the pasta.  Tossed together with olive oil, chunky grey salt, freshly ground coarse pepper, and a little sherry vinegar to brighten it up, we had a beautiful and quick dinner.

I have to admit though I did get a picture of the tomatoes readily awaiting the olive oil (notice the brilliant colors) I got distracted and neglected to take pictures of the finished product.  So make it yourself and send me the pictures to see how your finished product turned out!!

Copyright 2011 Christi Flaherty, TablaVie Cooking Classes

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Bruschetta with Smoked Salmon, Preserved Lemon Olive Relish and Horseradish Cream

Though I love cooking for people in the wine industry, it's always intimidating when I have to cook for winemakers.  They typically have very defined palates and have eaten at the finest restaurants.  Therefore, I second guess everything I cook.

On this particular night several weeks ago, I was asked to bring an appetizer to accompany dinner with our friend who is the winemaker for Vitus wines (Highly recommend finding these wines and buying these wines!!).  Without having any idea what he would be serving to drink or eat, I used my normal philosophy...Cook What I've Got.

I looked in my freezer and found a large filet of wild smoked salmon.  I let it thaw slightly and skinned it then flaked.  Upon a look in my fridge I spotted oil cured olives and preserved lemons, then I knew I had tomatoes.  So I created a roughly chopped relish with these and a green onion.  The preserved lemons and olives had the right amount of salt, so I didn't even need to season it much at all.  Feeling the need for a creamy element I whizzed up some cottage cheese, yogurt and horseradish in the food processor.

When it was all said and done, the three elements combined on top of the grilled bread to make a beautiful and delicious appetizer that paired perfect with the pre-release of Rose that our friend served that night.

So, once again, the CWYG philosophy served me well.

Copyright 2011 Christi Flaherty, TablaVie Cooking Classes

Copyright 2012 TablaVie Personal Chef Service

All photos and recipes may not be used without express permission from Christi Flaherty, owner and creator of Cook What You've Got Concept and blog.
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